By Emi Yamada / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThe musical “Shonentachi” (NINJA DRONES?) tells a dramatic tale of rebellious youths locked up in a juvenile prison. The legendary work has been performed many times since 1969 by members of various boy bands, from the Four Leaves to A.B.C-Z and Johnny’s West, all of whom were managed by male pop idol powerhouse Johnny&Associates, Inc.
Half a century after its premiere, the show has been adapted for a film, directed by Katsuhide Motoki, which is now showing in theaters. Its cast are the elite of the entertainment agency’s young talents, collectively known as Johnny’s Jr. Notable among them are the six members of SixTONES (pronounced Stones), a Johnny’s Jr. act formed in 2015.
The ambitious six — Jesse, Taiga Kyomoto, Yugo Kochi, Hokuto Matsumura, Shintaro Morimoto and Juri Tanaka — revealed various behind-the-scenes details from the film and discussed the group’s future.
The Yomiuri Shimbun: What did you think when you first heard about the movie adaptation?
Jesse: Very surprised. At the end of the Heisei era (1989-2019), the stage work has been turned into a film for the first time, with Mr. Johnny [Kitagawa, who heads Johnny&Associates] taking the helm as executive producer, also for the first time. I wondered whether we deserved it.
Kyomoto: I have a strong attachment to this show because I appeared in it for the past four years. I was glad [about the movie] because more people can see it and we can show them the appeal of Johnny’s Jr.
Kochi: When we saw a preview with Johnny-san, he asked us, “What do you think of it?” We all offered our opinions, and we later did retakes for some of the scenes.
Jesse: That’s the way he works. He told us we must think and make the film by ourselves. I feel he trusts us, so we can’t fail.
Tanaka: He never tells us what to do. All he says are things a father would say, like “Don’t catch a cold.” But I have to say, the filming was done in a quite harsh environment.
Kochi: We shot the film in a former prison in Nara, which was built during the Meiji era (1868-1912). It was an important cultural property, so heaters were strictly prohibited, even though it was in the middle of winter! I used a lot of warmers and wore layers of undershirts.
Morimoto: It was really cold!
Kochi: The cells [of the prison] are placed radially from the correction office at center, so the cells could be closely guarded, which I found quite scary. When I got out of the building, I really felt free. It must have been that “The air outside is delicious” feeling [that released prisoners get].
SixTONES members play the inmates of the prison’s red wing, and their rival convicts in the blue wing are played by the members of Snow Man. The cast also includes performers from Naniwa Danshi, Kansai Johnny’s Jr. and other Johnny&Associates groups.
The musical vividly depicts the rehabilitation of emotionally scarred boys with powerful music. In the story, new inmate Jun (Kyomoto) slowly opens his heart to other inmates, including the leader, Joe (Jesse). As new chief guard (Yu Yokoyama) starts enforcing a violent regime, the inmates get together and start making a secret plan.
Q: Which scene is the highlight?
Jesse: The eight-minute dance scene in the opening. It was filmed in one take with one camera. It’ll transport the viewers into the prison right away.
Matsumura: The dancing cast and crew moved together, finding the routes where they wouldn’t interrupt each other. If anyone made a mistake, it was all over. So it was very thrilling!
Kochi: The scene was completed in just one take! Everyone was so focused.
Tanaka: That’s because our staff repeated rehearsals and tests many times for three months until filming started. I like the scene where Jesse, who plays a strong leader, shows his weak side for the first time.
Jesse: I like that scene, too! He despises his mother, but learns that she is sick.
Tanaka: He leans against a dirty wall and cries as he crumbles to the floor. It was so realistic.
Kyomoto: When we first formed this group, we sang songs by KAT-TUN, who we admired. We had no songs of our own, or any confidence. We’ve been looking for the right image to define ourselves for a long time, and from around the time we made our original song, “Amazing!!!!!!” in 2017, we found that image [which we call] “cool” and “wild.” Our first music video, “Japonica Style,” solidified our look.
Kochi: It made our image stronger. We filmed the video immediately after it was decided [Hideaki] Takizawa-kun would be the producer, and the video was streamed three days later or so.
Kyomoto: The set was gorgeous, and we felt pumped up, like, “Music videos are great!”
Q: SMAP, Arashi and other Johnny’s groups have dominated the Heisei era, which is about to close. Where do you think pop idols will fit in the new era?
Jesse: It’s a little sad that our senpai artist groups are in a state of flux. But if you look at that change positively, it means now we can have our chance.
Jesse: If the heirs to mainstream Johnny’s groups are Sexy Zone and King & Prince ...
Tanaka: Then we’ll do something different! As simple as that. We need to release our debut CD to get into the race, so we’ll aim for that now. But we can also make our debut in a different style. I hope we’ll stick together to find our way with success that suits this age of diversity.